Thursday, September 12, 2002
It’s 1931, and W6XAO Is on the Air
By ROGER M. GRACE
That was the year when the Los Angeles television station, now known as KCBS, Channel 2, went on the air. Back then, it was Don Lee’s W6XAO.
It appears that the only stations in the U.S. that were already in existence when Don Lee started beaming images, and have survived, are in the State of New York. The first was W2XB, Schenectady, now known as WRGB, which began broadcasting in 1928. Then came RCA’s W2XBS, currently WNBC in New York City, which started sending test signals from Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx in 1928. W2XAB was on the air from 1931-33, hibernated, then resumed broadcasting in 1941; it now has the call letters WCBS.
Television was, in that era, a reality, in rudimentary form. There were blurry images on a pinkish screen. To most, it was a novelty; to a very few with vision, it was a dream and a mission.
Lee, a Cadillac dealer at Seventh and Bixel, got into Los Angeles broadcasting on Nov. 14, 1927 when he purchased KHJ radio from the L.A. Times—not to be outdone by his rival, Earl C. Anthony, a Packard dealer on Vermont, who owned KFI. (A year earlier, Lee had begun operations in San Francisco of radio station KFRC.)
He became a Daniel Boone in what was then a wilderness, later to become the area’s major industry—television.
W6XAO, Channel 1, went on the air on Dec. 23, 1931, broadcasting one hour a day, except on Sundays. There were no commercial televisions on the market, so viewers —or “lookers,” as they were then known—had to build their own. The station supplied schematics to anyone who submitted a self-addressed stamped envelope.
The station could be received for a radius of about 30 miles, though the signals did not dip into crevices. There were thus no “lookers” in the San Fernando Valley or the canyons of Pacific Palisades.
Nowadays there are 525 lines on a television screen, and that’s been the standard since the Federal Communications Commission adopted it in 1941. But in earlier days, there were no standards; there was testing and tinkering.
In 1931, the November issue of The Reader’s Digest contained an article condensed from Forbes titled, “How about Television?” It reported:
“Some stations are broadcasting on a 45-line screen, but the majority uses 60 lines. Sixty lines means that the television image is made up of 3600 little dots of varying light and shadow intensity....
“However, even the 60-line image leaves much to the imagination.”
Back in 1931, there were an estimated 9,000 television receivers in New York and 30,000 in the rest of the nation. There were no commercial television stations; the Federal Radio Commission didn’t permit spiels on TV. All television broadcasting was done on “experimental” stations.
And experimentation was taking place on two competing television systems. One was “mechanical” television based on a system patented in 1883 by Russian-German researcher Paul Nipkow, and utilized in daily transmissions over the BBC beginning in 1929.
It was on July 21, 1931 that the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) adopted that system, embarking on a 28-hour a week broadcasting schedule in New York City over W2XAB. It used that system until it suspended television broadcasting in February 1933.
The system employed a disc punched with holes along the outer edge in a spiral formation. There would be as many holes on the disc as there would be lines on the picture tube. The disc spun around, with each hole, in turn, scanning a line of the image, vertically. The impulses were transmitted via radio waves; the television receiver, also equipped with a rotating disc, would turn translate rapid flashes into pictures.
The other system was “electronic” television, also transmitting impulses, but eliminating the whirling disc. In other words, it was television as we know it. That was the system favored by NBC from the start.
On Oct. 30, 1931, NBC put its W2XBS
transmitter on top of the Empire State Building, and beamed images from there on Dec. 22, 1931. Felix
the cat became a TV star. The image was better defined than what “lookers” were
accustomed to seeing. NBC was utilizing 120 lines.
FELIX THE CAT (120 lines)
Which system did Don Lee use? Both.
W6XAO, the station Don Lee started on Dec. 23, 1931, used the electronic method. That station is prominent in renditions of the early history of television because it endured.
What is generally overlooked is that Lee had started another television station in Los Angeles County earlier that year. It was W6XS, transmitting with 500 watts of power from a location near the City of Gardena, filling screens with 80 lines. W6XS was one of about 16 stations in the United States which, during a period starting in 1928 and ending in 1939, broadcast programming on a regular schedule utilizing the rotating disc system. It went off the air in 1935.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company
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